From JYM to the Pentagon: JYM alumna’s career in transatlantic relations

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Picture of Maya holding award in front of tree
A recent photo of Maya Malkani
after receiving the Office of Secretary of Defense
Exceptional Civilian Service Award for
European and NATO Policy Efforts.

Maya Malkani (JYM 1999-2000) just passed her 20-year anniversary since JYM

She has been working at the Secretary of Defense for more than 10 years and is currently the director of global outreach and deputy assistant secretary of defense for China. She writes here of her fascinating journey from JYM into a decades-long career in transatlantic relations.


Leaving Munich twenty years ago following an extraordinarily memorable year was difficult. I felt I was relinquishing a chapter of my life to history and was sad about the uncertainty of when I’d come back. I did not realize I was embarking on a new, professional chapter enabled by an indispensable JYM foundation and valued German language skills. The year of immersion in Germany and wider exposure to the European landscape commenced a career in transatlantic relations working with almost every NATO Ally and EU member in a defense diplomacy capacity.

Soon after JYM, I found myself working at the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt during the September 11 attacks. At that moment, with borders shut, inability to connect with family and friends and not knowing if I would be able to fly home to New York the following week, the only solace was from official duties receiving kind Frankfurters who descended on our Consulate with flowers, candles, America stories and offers of assistance for stranded U.S. citizens.

Photo was taken at German Ministry of Defense, during Secretary of Defense Ash Carter 2015 Visit to Berlin for meeting with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (now President of European Commission). Maya Malkani is pictured here in the back row in black dress suit.
Photo was taken at German Ministry of Defense, during Secretary of Defense Ash Carter's 2015 visit to Berlin for a meeting with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (now President of the European Commission).
Maya Malkani is pictured here in the back row in a black dress suit.

In the challenging post-911 job environment, my year abroad and German language skills helped build my resume. A mentor steered me toward a teaching job in Switzerland, which made me realize that Bayrisch is pretty close to Hochdeutsch when compared to Schwiizer-Teutschli! Following that experience, I began a master’s program in Washington D.C. and coincidentally found lodging with a German family.

After graduation, I landed a job in the Pentagon's Office of European and NATO Policy and in time found myself managing U.S.-Germany bilateral defense relations. Some highlights from that period included witnessing President Obama's welcome ceremony for Chancellor Merkel at the White House and traveling with two Secretaries of Defense to Munich and Berlin. I found some satisfaction when one Secretary agreed to use the German lines I penned for a major policy speech in Berlin.  When the day's work was done, it was fun playing tour guide to landmarks like Marienplatz, Augustiner Keller, Alter Simpl and Brandenburger Tor and introducing bosses and colleagues to old street food favorites.

A gathering around a table at the Pentagon
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosted Ursula von der Leyen in 2014 at the Pentagon.
Maya Malkani is pictured at the head of the table.

I recently transitioned from European defense diplomacy to work on China policy and again felt torn about the change. However, transatlantic security continues to be closely intertwined and China is increasingly on the agenda. Germany's stature as a global power player continues to grow, so ironically it was not long before it was again wheels up to Germany in my new role – and in one instance, accompanied by an infant son on a most fitting first trip!

The gift of language is a beautiful one that builds relationships and unites people thousands of miles apart. In my own experience, it has helped quickly advance cooperation when relationships are on the upswing or smooth things over in times of friction. The transatlantic relationship often goes through cycles. Things are complicated.

Maya in front of a plane
Maya Malkani just before boarding Secretary of Defense E-4B Aircraft
(a.k.a. Doomsday) in Berlin 2014.

Institutions like JYM that create bridges between countries and their citizenry and foster greater understanding are critical. My time in Europe has served as an icebreaker and a foundation for trust in professional relationships. Thank you, JYM!

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